The litmus test for the global economy

A new recession era to emerge

Contingency planning has become mission-critical. The longer the coronavirus pandemic continues, the more it will expose the underlying fragility of today’s debt-laden global economy.

Companies therefore have to move into crisis management mode, with a number of key areas requiring immediate attention:

• Employee health and safety is the top priority. Governments are slowly waking up to the risks and are starting to provide expert advice. In the meantime, of course, many companies have already taken steps to reduce all unnecessary travel and to encourage home-working wherever possible. It would be prudent to assume their measures will last for longer than initially expected, as nobody will want to take the risk of problems emerging as a result of precautions being relaxed – especially in litigious countries such as the USA
Value chain risks are clearly a key area of concern for the business itself. Upstream, the oil price collapse means that the new US shale gas expansions have lost their hoped-for feedstock advantage versus European and Asian producers. Downstream, China’s auto sales fell 80% in February, whilst smartphone sales were down 55%. We must assume that other affected countries will also see major declines, even if hopefully not on the same scale
Supply chain risks are another major area for review. Anyone who has tried to map a modern supply chain knows that the exercise quickly reveals a number of ‘black holes’ where nobody really understands all the inter-dependencies. For example, although it might seem obvious in hindsight, did anyone really expect freight volumes in Los Angeles to fall 25% last month – even given its role as the largest gateway for seaborne China imports? And even if China does now return to normal, it will still take weeks for new shipments to arrive given the disruption that has occurred to freight and logistic operations
Credit risks also have the potential to surprise the unwary. The lure of cheap money from the central banks, and investor pressure to maximise earnings, has unfortunately led many companies to over-leverage their balance sheets. Even a relatively small profit downturn will therefore put their financial viability at risk. And as we know, whilst banks are happy to lend when the outlook is sunny, they are very quick to withdraw when storms appear on the horizon
Paradigm shifts add to the complexity that we now face. Today’s population growth is largely due to a major post-War rise in life expectancy, rather than a new babyboom. But older people already own most of what they need, creating a ‘demographic deficit’ in terms of demand growth. As a result, sustainability is now replacing globalisation as a key driver for our business. Used car sales, for example, are already cannibalising new car sales in China and elsewhere. Similarly, analysts see the used smartphone market growing by 50% over the next 3 years from the current 207 million sales.

Every business will have its own priority list of key risks. And, of course, I understand the feeling that ‘one can’t plan until one knows what is happening’. But whilst this was entirely logical in a world of ‘business as usual’, we now face the necessity of learning how to plan for uncertainty.

Reasonable people can disagree about whether the risks I have identified are a 10%, 50% or a 90% probability. But even if you assume they are just a 10% probability, their potential downside impact is so large that they cannot be ignored.

Contingency planning has therefore become mission-critical. One key uncertainty is that nobody can know how long the virus pandemic will last. But we can be sure that the longer it continues, the more it will expose the underlying fragility of today’s debt-laden global economy.

This crisis means it has therefore become mission-critical for businesses to build scenarios covering different timescales.

The aim is to understand what can be done today to mitigate the consequences of the epidemic extending beyond the end of this quarter, or into the second half of the year, in key markets? It will also provide a framework for assessing how recession might impact prices and margins for your products, as well as accelerating the trend towards buying second-hand products?

As the saying goes – “to fail to plan, is to plan for failure.”

Please click here (no registration required) if you would like to read my full analysis in this week’s ICIS Chemical Business.

Oil markets hit perfect storm as coronavirus cuts demand

Former Saudi Oil Minister Sheikh Yamani’s warning in 2000 looks increasingly prophetic today:

“30 years from now, there will be a huge amount of oil – and no buyers. 30 years from now, there is no problem with oil. The Stone Age did not end because the world ran out of stones, and the Oil Age will not end because we run out of oil. I am a Saudi and I know we will have serious economic difficulties ahead of us.”

“As King Faisal said in 1974, “In one generation we went from riding camels to riding Cadillacs. The way we are wasting money, I fear the next generation will be riding camels again”.“

Everything that could go wrong, is now going wrong for oil producers.  As the International Energy Agency reports:

“Global oil demand has been hit hard by coronavirus and the widespread shutdown of China’s economy. Demand is now expected to fall by 435 kb/d in Q1, the first quarterly contraction in more than 10 years.”

China and India have been the main source of demand growth over the past decade, and their economies are now clearly struggling.  China’s battle with coronavirus has had a terrible impact on oil demand, as Reuters reports:

In turn, as Saudi Oil Minister Prince Abdulaziz confirmed, coronavirus presents a major challenge to the OPEC cartel:

“When your house is on fire, you can either treat it with a garden hose and risk losing the building, or call the fire brigade.”

Remarkably, many on Wall Street still seem to believe in a V-shaped recovery from the coronavirus epidemic. But in reality, the demand picture may well get worse before it gets better, as other major oil consumers including S Korea, Japan and Italy are now suffering from the virus.

Equally important, as the chart shows, oil prices have finally broken out of the ‘flag shape’ that has been building for years, as I last discussed in November:

“It’s been a long journey for the ‘flag’, stretching back to the pre-Crisis peaks at nearly $150/bbl in the summer of 2008. And the bottom of the flag was made back in 2016, after the last collapse from 2014’s peak of $115/bbl .”

The supply position is also not following the story laid out by the hedge funds. They had bought 533mb of oil in Q4, assuming that OPEC+ Russia would happily reduce output to support prices.

But in reality, as the chart shows, Russian output hit a record post-Soviet era high in 2019.  And at December’s OPEC+ meeting, it was allowed to increase condensate output outside the quota – making thoughts of a cutback even more notional. The issue, as Reuters notes is:

“Saudi Arabia needs oil prices of about $80/bbl to balance its state budget while Russia can cope with prices as low as $42/bbl.”

The funds have also been disappointed by the failure of US shale output to collapse:

  • Contrary to the views of the “experts” they used, shale oil output is continuing to rise
  • What they missed was that the major oil companies are now involved
  • These have the cash and the expertise to overcome problems as they develop

So as always, Saudi Arabia has been left to carry the main burden of the cuts.

Saudi has had indirect support from the reduction in Iranian and Venezuelan output as a result of sanctions, along with the current reduction in Libyan output. But clearly the risks are rising for a collapse of the cartel, as happened in 1985 and temporarily in 2015.

Brent prices above $60/bbl were based on the idea of a perfect world – where OPEC+ cuts and a synchronised global upturn would fuel demand; the US-China trade war would end; and sustainability concerns would disappear. None of this looks likely today

And as Sheikh Yamani presciently warned, the Oil Age will not end because we run out of oil.  Unless OPEC+ prove able to make really deep cuts in output at this week’s meeting, oil prices seem highly likely to soon be back at their long-term average, below $30/bbl.

At this point, OPEC countries may regret that they didn’t diversify their economies whilst the oil money was still rolling in.

Oil markets hold their ‘flag shape’ for the moment, as recession risks mount

Oil markets can’t quite make up their mind as to what they want to do, as the chart confirms. The are trapped in a major ‘flag shape’.

Every time they want to move sharply lower, the bulls jump in to buy on hopes of a major US-China trade deal and a strong economy. But when they want to make new highs, the bears start selling again.

Its been a long journey  for the flag, stretching back to the pre-Crisis peaks at nearly $150/bbl in the summer of 2008. And the bottom of the flag was made back in 2016, after the last collapse from 2014 $115/bbl peak.

Recent weeks have seen the bulls jump back in, when prices again threatened to break the flag’s floor below $60/bbl. And, of course, OPEC keeps making noises about further output cuts in an effort to talk prices higher.

But as the charts from the International Energy Agency’s latest monthly report confirm:

“The OPEC+ countries face a major challenge in 2020 as demand for their crude is expected to fall sharply.”

This is OPEC’s problem when it aims for higher prices than the market will bear. Other producers, inside and outside OPEC, always take advantage of the opportunity to sell more volume. And once they have spent the capital on drilling new wells, the only factor holding them back is the actual production cost.

Capital-intensive industries like oil have always had this problem. They raise capital from investors when prices are high – but high prices naturally choke off demand growth, and so the new wells come on stream just when the market is falling. Next year the IEA suggests will see 2.3mbd of new volume come on stream from the US, Canada, Brazil, Norway and Guyana as a result.

OPEC’s high prices have already impacted demand, as the IEA notes:

Sluggish refinery activity in the first three quarters has caused crude oil demand to fall in 2019 for the first time since 2009.”

OPEC has had a bit of a free pass until recently, though, in respect of the new volumes from the USA. As the chart shows, the shale drilling programme led to a major volume of “drilled but uncompleted wells”. In other words, producers drilled lots of wells, but the pipelines weren’t in place to then take the new oil to potential markets.

But now the situation is changing, particularly in the prolific Permian basin region, as Argus report:

“The Permian basin has been a juggernaut for US producers, with output quadrupling from under 1mbd in 2010 to more than 4.5mbd in October.  US midstream developers have responded with a wave of new long-haul pipelines to shuttle the torrent of supply to Houston, Corpus Christi and beyond.

“The 670kbd Cactus 2 and the 400kbd Epic line went into service in August moving Permian crude to the Corpus Christi area. Phillips 66’s 900kbd Gray Oak pipeline is expected to enter service this month, moving Permian basin crude to Corpus Christi, Texas, for export.”

As a result, some of that oil trapped in drilled but uncompleted wells is starting to come to market. So if OPEC wants to keep prices high, it will either have to cut output further, or hope that the world economy starts to pick up.

But the news on the economic front is not good, as everyone outside the financial world knows.  Central banks are still busy pumping out $bns to keep stock markets moving higher. But in the real world outside Wall Street, high oil prices, trade wars, Brexit uncertainty and many other factors are making recession almost a certainty.

As the chart shows, there is a high correlation between the level of oil prices and global GDP growth. Once oil takes ~3% of GDP, consumers start to cut back on other purchases. They have to drive to work and keep their homes warm in winter. And with inflation weak, their incomes aren’t rising to pay the extra costs.

The US sums up the general weakness.  The impact of President Trump’s tax cuts has long disappeared. And now concerns are refocusing on the debt that it has left behind. As the function of debt is to bring forward demand from the future, growth must now reduce.  US GDP growth was just 1.9% in Q3, and the latest Q4 forecast from the Atlanta Fed is just 0.3% .

Its still too early to forecast which way prices will go, when they finally break out of the flag shape. But their failure to break upwards in the summer, when the bulls were confidently forecasting war with Iran, suggests the balance of risks is now tilting to the downside.

Oil market weakness suggests recession now more likely than Middle East war

Oil markets remain poised between fear of recession and fear of a US attack on Iran. But gradually it seems that fears about a war are reducing, whilst President Trump’s decision to ramp up the trade war with China makes recession far more likely.

The chart of Brent prices captures the current uncertainties:

  • It shows monthly prices for Brent since 1983 and highlights the conflicting risks
  • The bulls have been battling to push prices higher, but their confidence is weakening
  • The bears were hurt by the stimulus from US tax cuts and OPEC output cuts
  • But June’s abandonment of the Iran attack lifted their confidence

As a member of the President’s national security advisory team has noted:

“This is a president who was elected to get us out of war. He doesn’t want war with Iran.”

With fears about a potential war reducing, at least for the moment, attention has instead turned to issues of supply and demand.  And here, again, the balance of different factors has turned negative:

  • As the second chart shows, supply from the 3 major countries remains at a high level
  • The US is the largest producer, and August’s output is now recovering after the slowdown in the Gulf of Mexico due to Hurricane Barry, and the EIA is forecasting new record highs this year and 2020
  • 3 new pipelines are also coming online during H2, which will boost US oil export potential
  • Meanwhile Russia, as usual, has failed to follow through on its commitment to the OPEC cuts. Its output rose by 2% in January-July versus 2018, despite May/June’s contamination problems
  • As always with OPEC output cuts, Saudi Arabia has been forced to fill the gap. Its volume dipped to 9.8mbd in July, well below the 11mbd peak last November

Overall, global supply has remained strong with EIA estimating Q2 output at 100.6mbd versus 99.8mbd in Q2 last year. Contrary to last year’s optimism over global economic recovery, EIA suggests Q2 consumption only rose to 100.3mbd, versus 99.6mbd in Q2 last year.

And the normally bullish International Energy Agency last week cut its demand forecast for this year and 2020 warning:

“The outlook is fragile with a greater likelihood of a downward revision than an upward one…Under our current assumptions, in 2020, the oil market will be well supplied.”

The third chart, from Orbital Insight, highlights the changes that have been taking place in inventory levels in the major regions.

Generated from satellite images of floating roof tank farms, it is based on estimates of the volume of oil in each tank, which are then aggregated to regional or country level.

Oil markets are by nature opaque. But Orbital’s data does show a very high correlation with EIA’s estimates for  Cushing – where the official data is very reliable.

As discussed here many times before, the chemical industry is the best leading indicator for the global economy, due to its wide range of applications and geographic coverage.  The fourth chart shows the steady downward trend since December 2017 in the data on Capacity Utilisation from the American Chemistry Council.

Q2 has shown the usual seasonal ‘bounce’,  but key end-user markets such as electronics, autos and housing are also clearly weakening, as discussed last week for smartphones.  And Bloomberg has reported that US inventory levels at major warehouses are close to being full.

I suggested back in May that prudent companies would develop a scenario approach that planned for both war and recession, given that the outcome was then essentially unknowable.

Today, both scenarios are clearly still possible. But it would seem sensible to now step up planning for recession, given the downbeat signals from oil and chemical markets.

 

 

 

Recession risk rises as Iran tensions and US-China trade war build

Oil markets are once again uneasily balanced between two completely different outcomes – and one again involves Iran.

Back in the summer of 2008, markets were dominated by the potential for an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities, as I summarised at the time:

“Nothing is certain in life, except death and taxes. But it is hard to see markets becoming less volatile until either an attack takes place, or a peaceful solution is confirmed. And with oil now around $150/bbl, two quite different outcomes seem possible:

• In the event of an Israeli attack, prices might well rise $50/bbl to reach $200/bbl, at least temporarily

• But if diplomacy works, they could easily fall $50/bbl to $100/bbl”

In the event, an attack was never launched and prices quickly fell back to $100/bbl – and then lower as the financial crisis began.

Today, Brent’s uneasy balance around $70/bbl reflects even more complex fears:

  • One set of worries focuses on potential supply disruption from a war in the Middle East
  • The other agonises over the US-China trade war and the rising risk of recession

It is, of course, possible that both fears could be realised if war did break out in the Gulf and oil prices then rose above $100/bbl.

The issue is highlighted in the Reuters chart on the left, which shows that Brent has moved from a contango of $1/bbl at the beginning of the year into a backwardation of nearly $4/bbl on the 6-month calendar spread. As they note:

“Backwardation is associated with periods of under-supply and falling inventories, while contango is associated with the opposite, so the current backwardation implies stocks are expected to fall sharply.”

But as the second Reuters chart confirms, traders are also aware that forecasts for oil demand are based on optimistic IMF forecasts for global growth. And recent hedge fund positioning confirms that caution may be starting to appear.

Traders are also aware of the key message from the above chart, which shows that periods when oil prices cost 3% of global GDP have almost always led to recession.  The only exception was after the financial crisis when central banks were printing as much money as possible to boost liquidity.

The reason is that consumers only have a certain amount of discretionary income.  If oil prices are low, then they have spare cash to buy the products and services that create economic growth. But if prices are high, their cash is instead spent on transport and heating/cooling costs, and so the economy slows.

“To govern is to choose” and President Trump therefore has some hard choices ahead:

  • His trade war with China currently appeals to many voters, Democrat and Republican.  But will that support continue as the costs bite?  The New York Federal Reserve reported on Friday that the latest round of tariffs will cost the average American household $831/year
  • Similarly, many voters favour taking a hard line with Iran.  But average US gasoline prices are already $2.94/gal as the US driving season starts this weekend, and today’s high prices will particularly impact the President’s core blue collar and rural voters

History doesn’t repeat, but it often rhymes as the famous American writer, Mark Twain, noted. If the President now chooses to fight a trade war with China and a real war with Iran, then he risks losing popularity very quickly as the costs in terms of lives and cash become more apparent.  Yet as we have seen since Lyndon Johnson’s time, this is usually something that politicians only learn after the event.

Investors and companies therefore have little to lose, and potentially much to gain, by accepting that we can only guess at how the two situations may play out.  Developing a scenario approach that plans for all the possible outcomes – as in 2008 – is much the most prudent option.

Déjà vu all over again for oil markets as recession risks rise

Back in 2015, veteran Saudi Oil Minister Ali  Naimi was very clear about Saudi’s need to adopt a market share-based pricing policy:

“Saudi Arabia cut output in 1980s to support prices. I was responsible for production at Aramco at that time, and I saw how prices fell, so we lost on output and on prices at the same time. We learned from that mistake.

As Naimi recognised, high oil prices created a short-term win for Saudi’s budget between 2011-4.  But they also allowed US frackers to enter the market – posing a major threat to Saudi’s control – whilst also reducing overall demand.  And his “boss”, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) agreed with him, saying:

“Within 20 years, we will be an economy that doesn’t depend mainly on oil. We don’t care about oil prices—$30 or $70, they are all the same to us. This battle is not my battle.”

Today, however, Saudi oil policy has reversed course, with MbS now trying to push prices towards the $80/bbl level assumed in this year’s Budget.

Saudi’s dilemma is that its growing population, and its need to diversify the economy away from oil, requires increases in public spending. As a result, it has conflicting objectives:

  • Its long-term need is to defend its market share, to guarantee its ability to monetise its vast oil reserves
  • But its short-term need is to support prices by cutting production, in order to fund its spending priorities

The result, as the chart above confirms, is that prices are now at levels which have almost always led to recession in the past.  It compares the total cost of oil* as a percentage of global GDP with IMF data for the economy, with the shaded areas showing US recessions. The tipping point is when the total cost reaches 3% of global GDP. And this is where we are today.

The reason is that high oil prices reduce discretionary spending.  Consumers have to drive to work and keep their homes warm (and cool in the summer).  So if oil prices are high, they have to cut back in other areas, slowing the economy.

CENTRAL BANK STIMULUS MADE OIL PRICES “AFFORDABLE” IN 2011-2014

There has only been one occasion in the past 50 years when this level failed to trigger a recession. That was in 2011-14, when all the major central bank stimulus programmes were in full flow, as the left-hand chart shows.

They were creating tens of $tns of free cash to support consumer spending.  But at the same time, of course, they were creating record levels of consumer debt, as the right-hand chart shows from the latest New York Federal Reserve’s Household Debt Report.  It shows US household debt is now at a record $13.54tn. And it confirms that consumers have reached the end of the road in terms of borrowing:

“The number of credit inquiries within the past six months – an indicator of consumer credit demand – declined to the lowest level seen in the history of the data.

SAUDI ARABIA IS NO LONGER THE SWING SUPPLIER IN OIL MARKETS

Oil prices are therefore now on a roller-coaster ride:

  • Saudi tried to push them up last year, but this meant demand growth slowed and Russian/US output rose
  • The rally ran out of steam in September and Brent collapsed from $85/bbl to $50/bbl in December

Now Saudi is trying again. It agreed with OPEC and Russia in December to cut production by 1.2mbd – with reductions to be shared between OPEC (0.8 million bpd) and its Russia-led allies (0.4 million bpd).  But as always, its “allies” have let it down.  So Saudi has been forced to make up the difference. Its production has fallen from over 11mbd to a forecast 9.8mbd in March.

Critically however, as the WSJ chart shows, it has lost its role as the world’s swing supplier:

Of course, geo-politics around Iran or Venezuela or N Korea could always intervene to support prices. But for the moment, the main support for rising prices is coming from the hedge funds.  As Reuters reports, their ratio of long to short positions in Brent has more than doubled since mid-December in line with rising stock markets.

But the hedge funds did very badly in Q4 last year when prices collapsed. And so it seems unlikely they will be too bold with their buying, whilst the pain of lost bonuses is so recent.

Companies and investors therefore need to be very cautious.  Saudi’s current success in boosting oil prices is very fragile, as markets are relying on more central bank stimulus to offset the recession risk. If market sentiment turns negative, today’s roller-coaster could become a very bumpy ride.

Given that Saudi has decided to ignore al-Naimi’s warning, the 2014-15 experience shows there is a real possibility of oil prices returning to $30/bbl later this year.

 

*Total cost is number of barrels used multiplied by their cost